Our Opinion: Commissioners hold purse strings for animal shelter

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Wilson County animal advocates’ anger isn’t misplaced. It’s just been misdirected.

Rescue group volunteers are right to be frustrated — furious, even — that pet owners have paid registration fees for nearly a decade and the gleaming new animal shelter we were promised exists only on blueprints. They’re right to push for low-cost spay and neuter clinics and a trap-neuter-release program for feral cats.

Their discontent boiled over during the Wilson County sheriff candidate forum May 1, with attendees putting Sheriff Calvin Woodard on the hot seat for a laundry list of animal control concerns. Many pet-lovers backed Chris Boykin, who made animal issues a key plank in his campaign platform.

While Wilson County Animal Enforcement is a division of the sheriff’s office and the elected sheriff is responsible for operating the shelter and investigating animal cruelty and neglect, as well as rounding up strays, Woodard’s due neither credit nor blame in the shelter debacle.

County commissioners voted to assess pet owners a yearly animal registration privilege fee, which took effect Jan. 1, 2009. They verbally earmarked that money for a new shelter, but the ordinance authorizing the fees didn’t specify their use and the board’s chairman and vice chair directed then-County Manager Ellis Williford to deposit fee proceeds into the general fund, where it was commingled with other revenue and spent.

“I know that I was presented an animal fee for the sole intent and purpose of these monies going to build a new shelter and that is what I voted for,” District 4 Commissioner Roger Lucas wrote in a summer 2012 email to Williford.

County leaders passed a pet fee to build a shelter, then shrugged off their commitment and spent the cash on other things. That bait and switch was, and is, nothing short of a scandal. Those responsible are no longer serving, but their successors inherited the duty to make things right.

Commissioners finally tried to make amends in June 2016, creating a capital reserve fund and voting to appropriate a minimum of $70,000 for a new animal shelter and $100,000 for a new Wilson County EMS station each year for a period of five years.

That effort was too little, too late. Officials expected to haul in $120,000 in pet privilege fees. Why is only 58.3 percent of pet fee revenue being reserved for a new shelter when that need is the sole reason the tax came into existence?

Animal advocates faulting the sheriff for the pet fee fiasco ought to turn their ire to those who hold the purse strings. Only Wilson County commissioners can appropriate the money to build a new animal shelter. Yet they seem to glide under the radar while Woodard serves as a lightning rod for all manner of animal control complaints.

Commissioners seem eager to pass the buck. When For the Love of Dogs owner Max Fitz-Gerald asked for spay and neuter clinics in the spring of 2017, the county board told him to take the matter up with Woodard, whose office administers a state spay/neuter voucher program for low-income residents.

That’s disingenuous, as the sheriff can’t commandeer extra cash from the county budget to bankroll new animal care initiatives. Commissioners could have voted to fund a spay and neuter program and handed the money over to the sheriff’s office with strings attached.

Rescue groups have locked horns with Woodard over the years, and there may well be some fault on both sides. Voters in Tuesday’s Democratic sheriff primary handed Woodard the nomination with a commanding 71 percent of the vote. Unless Republican candidate Kevin Raper scores an upset victory over Woodard in November, the animal rescue community and the current sheriff will have to mend fences, declare a truce and work together for the good of our four-legged friends.

When it comes to funding, animal advocates must hold commissioners accountable regardless of how they feel about the sheriff. These passionate citizens have their hearts in the right place, but until their voices echo through the county commission chambers, it’s unlikely anything will change.

County residents and the representatives they elect are due for a wake-up call. Lucas chairs a Board of Commissioners subcommittee on animal control issues. That panel doesn’t hold regularly scheduled public meetings. We’re not sure why — it seems there is plenty to discuss.

Department heads and County Manager Denise Stinagle are working to shape the fiscal year 2018-19 budget. Perhaps now’s the time to remind commissioners that the responsibility to fix their predecessors’ mistakes where purloined pet fees are concerned rests squarely on their shoulders.